Are there any sustainable alternatives for toilet paper? This could either be done by recycled paper (if such exists), but perhaps some other creative solution could be interesting.
In India you have to look hard to find toilet paper and if you do it is expensive. They wash themselves after each time the use the toilet (longer). For this purpose, public toilets (train stations, hotels, restaurants) in India sometimes have a (fairly high-power) shower head installed next to them. If you use shower gel for your washing process, the result is much like what you have when you get out of the shower. (In India, of course, this is why they only eat and shake hands with the right hand... In case they didn't have any shower gel.)
Personally, I think I would prefer the recycled paper way to this, though.
A small diversion: In terms of sustainability, one should really use a compost toilet, though. Most mammals know better than to poison their water supply with feces. A marvellous DIY system has been used (and made available online for free) by the "Humanure" Guy. I would argue that composting your waste material promotes healthy growth of plants, which is a good counter-weight to global warming (if that is what you're looking for).
I started using a toilet paper alternative about nine months ago. I was tired of the old plumbing in the house clogging up, and knowing that toilet paper is a cut down tree used so I can wipe my ass, felt very wasteful.
At the same time, we're living in a modern society. I'm a software engineer by trade, so I prefer using technology when I can.
I found that the quick-dry camping towels you might find at REI works very well. You wet them a bit and wipe. It is the same idea as using a wash rag. To clean it, I use soap. I use Dr. Bronner's castille soap, and pump it from a foaming pump container (which are reusable). Occasionally, I fill a bucket with water and borax and let it soak.
I have never had to do more than three wipes. Most of what comes out are water-soluble, so wetting the towel before wiping helps tremendously.
The quick-dry towel dries up fast so it does not collect mold or mildew.
The color matters because you want to know how clean it is. I was unable to find a white quick-dry towel for some reason. I currently use a blue one. The shit-brown color shows up well against the blue (sometimes turning it green). I am not color-blind, so your mileage may vary.
Yes, there are plenty of suppliers, at least in the UK, that use recycled materials to make their toilet paper.
You could also look for accreditation for sustainable sourcing: there are schemes such as the Forest Stewarship Council that accredit suppliers that meet their criteria for sustainability. Note that some of these accreditation schemes are controversial, and some criteria are disputed as to just how sustainable they are; and/or how well-enforced they are. Your mileage may vary.
One alternative is to use soap and water.
Try planting mullein (verbascum thapsus). It is a pioneer species that will grow in the worst soil conditions and improve the soil over time. It's leaves are large, thick and covered in a soft fuzz which gives them the feel of a high quality 3-ply TP. It also has a number of medicinal uses outside of hygiene. (I would advise against reusing "soiled" leaves for medicinal purposes ;-) )
One thing to note. Some that have tried it claim the "hairs" on the leaves are an irritant. So if you have sensitive skin you may want to seek an alternative.
To add to Terry and Darren's suggestions, I wanted to insist on the fact that modern bidet attachments are available and easily installable on a sitting water toilet without major modification.
This kind of compact electronic attachment might be more hygienic than hand-held showers, as there is less risk of splash-back.
About the environmental impact, there are a number of things to consider:
- The amount of water coming out of those devices is fairly small compared to the toilet flush.
- The device involves building materials like plastic, different kinds of metal for parts and extra bit of plumbing... and some wiring + the use of electricity in case of electronics.
- Does the device include an air-drying function, that would use more energy but could completely remove toilet paper form the bathroom? Will you be using a reusable towel to dry yourself, or will you still use some toilet paper?
- What kind of paper are you using currently? Is it already post-consumer recycled paper? Or FSC certified? Was the wood pulp bleached? Where does the raw material come from, and where is it transformed?
- What is your local waste water treatment plant process, i.e. what is the effect of toilet paper in the treatment or disposal of sewerage water locally? Or do you use a septic tank?
All those parameters will influence the comparison between the two methods.
Mother Nature News says that bidets would be more environmentally friendly than just paper, because they'd (counter-intuitively) save water (paper production is water-intensive, even for recycled paper), and because the mill's organic pollution would be mostly avoided.
American Scientist lists the tree, water, electricity and chlorine savings that would be made if Americans gave toilet paper up, and agrees that the amount of water used by the bidet is negligible compared to the amount of water used in the paper production.
The benefit of a completely separate bidet unit would be to have a dry composting toilet and reduce significantly the amount of water used in the bathroom altogether.
I am surprised no-one has mentioned bidets yet, which in Japan is your high-tech toilet. (Though, it sounds like in India it is a shower!)
The "eco sums" will get quite complicated, as you are trading some electricity and water to save a few sheets of paper. If you reduce from say 8 sheets of 1-ply down to 2 sheets, I imagine that is an overall saving: less paper in the waste, meaning you need less water for the flush (?) and lower water treatment energy needed (?).
There is also an advantage to sensitive skin, where rubbing and scrubbing is much worse than simply dabbing (to dry). :-)
As this site is all about the holistic viewpoint, it is worth mentioning the effect of diet. As a side-effect of our hedonistic Western lifestyle, we've all had good days and bad days... but a bit more fibre, and a few spoonfuls of yoghurt, could save a few sheets each day!
Females can certainly reduce their TP use by using cut up cloth to wipe after #1. Using the cut off tops of old cotton socks works really well too. They have a good amount of thickness for absorption. Small cotton cloths & sock tops take up hardly any space in a load of laundry and can be reused over and over. Reduce your use of precious tree fibres, and save $, girls!
When my daughter was in diapers, we used cloth wipes for her. I bought them online, but pretty much any small piece of cloth will do. I would wet it with a spray bottle of water or a wipes solution to keep her skin clean and free of any rashes. The only thing I didn't like about it was having to using a diaper sprayer/bidet to rinse solid waste before putting them in the washer. Since I was already doing this with her cloth diapers anyway, it wasn't really as bad comparatively. Solid waste is not disolvable with the washer so it has to be removed before washing (unless you have a different method of clothes washing.)
I looked into using this method for myself and my husband (probably without the wipes solution for simplicity sake). I found some good info/idea from this article and I liked the bulleted pro/con list. Ultimately, we decided against this method for our family. But I'm so glad you posted this question because the other answers given are very insightful and have given me a lot to consider!
I hope you find (or have found) a good solution for your family.
I live in Korea and we have a bidet toilet seat. I was wary at first, but now I'm a complete convert. Paper just cannot clean as well. There are a few varieties of bidet toilet attachments, but they basically fall into the categories of mechanical and electrical. The mechanical ones are of course the most environmentally friendly, and I personally don't like using a bidet with anything hotter than lukewarm water, but each to their own.
After much experimentation and financial, environmental and hygienic considerations, I have found that, for my use, Skoy cloths make the best alternative to toilet paper. They are the right size, absorbent, easily and thoroughly washable, wring out almost dry, dry quickly and last a long time. I feel clean and pleased to help the planet. Of course, I do leave Seventh Generation toilet paper out for my guests.
I know of some people (mainly older generation) who would use cut up newspaper stripes. I've never actually tried it myself though. The problem I see is that you'd have to flush more often because newspaper may clog your toilet. This would of course then offset much of the potential ecological gain.
Sunni people use soil for anal cleansing, maintaining a largely dry latrine.
I have no more information about what kind of soil and how to use it, though. I can see the benefit for a combination with urine separating dry toilets though, as it will help dry the feces instead of adding water to it. That helps to lower the humidity to a point where the aerobic digestion (=composting) process can start. Usually this is achieved with litter like sawdust or leaves, but soil would also work.